This time last year, Stefanos Tsitsipas was ranked outside the top 80, famous probably only in his own household. Twelve months on, the 20-year-old Greek is ranked No 15 and into his first grand slam semi-final, while the whole of Greece and much of Melbourne has been hanging on his every move.
Tsitsipas prepared for Herculean task
Greek not afraid to take on mighty Nadal in semis
Having stunned Roger Federer in the fourth round of the Australian Open, Tsitsipas will take on Rafael Nadal on Thursday for a place in the final, a task that if not quite Herculean, is not far off it.
On clay, a different story
But if there is one thing you can say about Tsitsipas is that he does not lack for belief. “I played him once, once on clay, once hard court. I felt very close to beating him in Toronto, though the score was 6-2, 7-6. I remember coming back to the locker room and promising to myself I'm going to do much better against him next time. It felt like I understood a bit better what he was doing on the court after that match, and especially on hard court.
Φύσει γαρ άνθρωπος, ό βούλεται, τούτο και οίεται. pic.twitter.com/47a4Mf2oid— Stefanos Tsitsipas (@StefTsitsipas) January 22, 2019
“On clay, it was a different story. I felt like I had no chance after losing in Barcelona 6-1, 6-2. I felt like he's on completely another level on clay than on hard. It's going to be interesting. I feel all right with my game. I feel like I can do something good against him.”
For a man who lost in the first round on his only previous visit to Melbourne, that’s some statement but Tsitsipas has shown over the past year that he is a man who is headed for the top. His win over Federer, the record grand-slam holder, in the fourth round was a statement of intent and he avoided the dreaded let-down with victory over Roberto Bautista-Agut of Spain in the quarter-finals.
Nadal is a different beast
With his legion of fans in tow, and with plenty of family courtside, including some second cousins who live in Melbourne, he has enjoyed support few others can count on. Like Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus, who reached the final in Melbourne in 2006, Tsitipas feeds off the crowd, using their energy to his advantage.
But Nadal is a different beast. The Spaniard has not dropped a set on his way to the semi-finals, the first time he has done that since 2009, the year he won the title. At 32 and with a revamped serve that is working perfectly, he has not been troubled and will be confident, if not complacent, that he can reach a fourth final here in eight years.
And yet, Nadal knows that young players improve almost week on week and previous results, if they are not in recent weeks, will probably not matter much.
A charismatic player
“He's a player that what happened in the past, I don't know if going to have a great impact or not about what can happen,” he said. “When you face these young players, they are in permanent improvement. He's with confidence. He won a lot of good matches. Will be a tough one.
“For me is always the same: you are in the semi-finals of a grand slam, you can't expect an easy opponent. Stefanos is one of the best players of the world. To have the chance to be in that final, I need to play my best, and that's what I am looking for. He's a charismatic player. Good shots from both sides, good serve. It is a good challenge for me. I hope to be ready for it. I think I am playing well.”
Experience would suggest that Nadal will come out on top, with the occasion as much of an issue for Tsitsipas as the left-hander’s vicious forehand. But anyone who manages to beat Federer on the big stage deserves respect.
Another step towards one of his dreams
Seeing Nadal in the semi-finals is never a surprise but after ending the year with injury and then having foot surgery in the off-season, it is an impressive comeback. Tsitsipas has been tipped for the top for a while now and one more win will see him on the biggest stage of all.
Beating Federer was the biggest victory of his life but beating Bautista-Agut, with all the expectation on his shoulders, was almost as impressive. “I knew that win against Federer was important, played a huge role in my image, like who I am (in people’s eyes),” he said. “But I knew that the biggest challenge was today's match, that I can prove myself once again.”
If he beats Nadal, he’ll have taken another big step towards one of his dreams. That it is even possible shows how far he has come in such a short time.